The following eras would see numerous slanders, hoax plots blamed on both African Americans and Native Americans, and regular rumors of slave rebellions invoked in a continual process of consolidating both property and power for white hegemony. Indeed, as Terry Ann Knopf argues in Rumors, Race, and Riots, fake stories about slave rebellions inflamed pro-secessionist thought in the South. The common theme is one that newspaper editors and demagogues alike used repeatedly to their advantage: White citizens were uniquely susceptible to perceived threats to their power, both nonviolent and violent, and often responded by further suspending democracy.
This proclivity manifested in a frequent and bloody fashion after the Civil War. Over the three decades following the end of that conflict, white paramilitary violence, lynchings, policing, and other antidemocratic political mechanisms were used in concert across the South in order to stop black people from voting; to institute forced apprenticeships, prison labor, sharecropping, and other forms of unfree labor; to erase all semblance of political, legal, and economic agency; and to implement in each southern state Jim Crow governments that lasted for generations.
That story is known—and told often in the pages of this magazine—but it’s the specific ways in which white supremacists engaged in widespread radicalization of poor whites that seems particularly relevant today. Redeemers like the North Carolina Democratic leader Furnifold Simmons recruited poor whites into their political coalitions by using fear-mongering about rape of white women by black men, and about the prospect of “Negro rule.” Scientific racism was critical in establishing the pretext for barring black people from democratic participation, and for inspiring them to ever more violent methods.
Simmons often receives top billing in North Carolina for the establishment of a near-century of white supremacy. But, as was the case in other states, he benefited from a well-oiled psychological-warfare machine. The leader of the information experiment undergirding Simmons’s campaign was Josephus Daniels, editor of the Raleigh News and Observer, and a man who strikes an eerily similar figure to some principals in the Cambridge Analytica story.
According to an exhaustive report on the grand finale in Simmons’s and Daniels’s white supremacy campaign, the 1898 Wilmington Massacre:
Using the News and Observer first as a barometer of public opinion and then as a weapon, Daniels and Simmons worked together to develop a strong argument against Fusion and in favor of white supremacy in order to win the 1898 election. The paper slowly introduced the white supremacy issue to its readers, fed stories to other papers, and worked the reading public into a frightened and tense frenzy … [Daniels] bragged that, because of the print campaign, ‘people on every side were at such a key of fighting and hate that the Democrats would believe almost any piece of rascality.’
Daniels used his paper as a primitive data-collection tool, gauging the sensibilities and vulnerabilities of his white readers, and then took those data and weaponized them, feeding a precise mixture of fact, fiction, pseudoscience, inflammatory arguments, and meme-like cartoons to the minds of men that Simmons considered would-be “riders.” Those riders then conspired to suspend democracy, killing or intimidating the black people who got in the way.